While Congress has made some strides in their attention to and effort towards including the needs of military women and veterans in policymaking, gender-specific concerns are more often than not invisible and ignored in the policymaking process. SWAN works to educate policymakers at the local, state, and federal level about the needs of military women and ensure that legislation that would adequately address their needs is supported.

Ending the Rape, Sexual Assault, and Sexual Harassment Crisis

Note: The phrase Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is the official term for the psychological trauma that may result from military rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. SWAN considers the term a euphemism and prefers to call these crimes and violations what they are—rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. The term “MST” masks the severity of this crisis, and it is important to properly name these egregious acts committed against our men and women in uniform. However, when necessary we use the term MST when referring to specific VA policies.

There is no end in sight to sexual violence in the U.S. military. Despite over 25 years of Pentagon studies, task force recommendations and congressional hearings, rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment continue to occur at alarming rates year after year. In addition to the devastating effects of sexual violence on survivors and their families, rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment threaten the strength, readiness and morale of the U.S. military, thus effectively undermining U.S. national security. In 2010, the DoD documented 3,158 incidents of military sexual assault. However, because only 13.5% of incidents are actually reported, the real number of rapes and sexual assaults that occurred in 2010 is estimated to be over 19,000. Sexual violence and harassment continue to infect the military environment, making it a dangerous workplace for both men and women.

The military sexual violence crisis not only affects service men and women, but also cadets and midshipmen at the U.S. military academies where future military members are trained. DoD survey data indicates that 520 cadets and midshipmen experienced unwanted sexual contact during the 2009-2010 academic year, and that only 10% of assaults were actually reported. The same military dynamics that make rape and sexual assault more likely to happen, that prevent survivors from reporting incidents, and that prevent perpetrators from being properly disciplined, are pervasive throughout the academy environments. Victim-blaming, inadequate reporting procedures and misogynistic climates that infect the U.S. military are also ubiquitous throughout the U.S. Military, Naval, Air Force, and Coast Guard Academies. Young and impressionable cadets and midshipmen and women are being socialized into behaviors and beliefs that perpetuate the sexual violence crisis. Because academy graduates often end up in leadership positions within the military, it is imperative that they are trained to encourage intolerance of sexual assault and harassment. (Academy Report)

SWAN’s work exposes this crisis by educating policymakers, the media, health professionals and non-profit organizations about the causes and consequences of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. We consider our work undone until service women are able to serve in the military without the constant threat of sexual violation and can safely exercise their right to bring their perpetrators to justice. (Rape, Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Fact sheet)

What SWAN does:

In the course of one year, SWAN testified five times before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and focused on the effects of MST on service members and veterans, as well as the lack of gender specific resources and benefits for women.

SWAN’s policy team has worked on educating and engaging members of Congress on issues of sexual violence, sexual harassment and domestic violence related to service members and MST claims for veterans. SWAN has been instrumental in getting groundbreaking legislation and amendments introduced. (Legislation)

SWAN has advised the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women about the sexual violence crisis in the U.S. military.

SWAN is organizing a broad coalition of like-minded nonprofit, advocacy, legal, and healthcare organizations that have a stake and interest in ending the sexual violence crisis. This coalition will provide the support and energy that is necessary to bring our policy agenda forward and pressure members of Congress to act. We intend to bring sweeping change to the military’s handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault cases to ensure investigations are done properly, perpetrators are prosecuted, commanders are held accountable and survivors protected.

VA Claims

Survivors of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment face enormous obstacles when applying for disability compensation from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). Institutional bias in favor of claimants with combat experience effectively ignores men and women with MST-related PTSD. Because claimants are required to identify a specific trigger that directly caused PTSD, combined with the fact that sexual violence most often goes unreported, survivors are at a severe disadvantage in proving the origin of their trauma. Finally, available evidence suggests that men are actually less likely than women to receive compensation for MST-related PTSD claims, partially because claims officers believe in rape mythology, such as the idea that men cannot be raped. Furthermore, under DOD policy, sexual harassment reports are destroyed after only two years, further compounding veterans’ inability to substantiate their claims.

What SWAN does:

In 2010, SWAN testified five times before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, focusing each time on the effects of MST on service members and veterans, and the lack of gender specific resources and benefits for women.

SWAN is organizing a broad coalition of like-minded nonprofit, advocacy, legal and healthcare organizations that have a stake and interest in ending the MST epidemic. One goal of this coalition is to reform VA handling of MST claims so survivors are assured of fair handling of their claims and receive proper compensation for their injuries.

In conjunction with the ACLU, SWAN filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain data on gender difference in disability awards for MST-related claims. This data is currently being analyzed and will be used to advocate on behalf of claimants of who are disabled because of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment experiences during military service.

VA Health Care

Time and time again, women veterans tell us that the care they receive at VA health centers is inadequate. While the VA has made notable strides in women’s healthcare, many gender-specific services simply do not exist at most VA health centers or are difficult to access. Furthermore, some women report that the VA is an unwelcoming, uncomfortable, and hostile place for women and that insensitivity among healthcare staff is common.

What SWAN does:

SWAN influenced the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act by advising Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) on how to improve VA health care for women veterans. President Obama signed this bill into law in 2010.

At five Congressional hearings, SWAN has highlighted the lack of quality health care at VA hospitals, as well as the need for increased fee-based care for women veterans and survivors of MST.

SWAN is working with members of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs to improve the processing of MST claims and training and oversight of VA claims officers.

LGBT Discrimination

President Obama’s signing of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act marked a historic step in the direction of progress and equality for members of the United States military. After years of tireless advocacy towards this repeal, we applaud Congress for finally repealing the blatantly discriminatory policy that also disproportionately targeted women and service members of color.

As delighted as we are that members of the military can finally serve openly without having to lie about their sexual orientation, we are also keenly aware that repeal alone does not make the military any safer for both women and LGBT service members . LGBT service members endure informal discriminatory treatment from their peers and superiors in the military and generally confront a hostile, unwelcome, and unsafe environment.

Furthermore, the connection between LGBT discrimination and the sexual violence crisis is undeniable. In same-sex assaults, survivors are reluctant to come forward for fear that their assault may be confused with homosexual activity. LGBT service members are also more vulnerable to sexual harassment. Finally, LGBT veterans face a host of mental health and reintegration issues because of the harassment, discrimination and exclusion they may have experienced while serving.

What SWAN does:

SWAN advised the Pentagon’s Comprehensive Review Working Group (CRWG) on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy, by representing the concerns of women and people of color, two subgroups disproportionately discharged under the policy.

SWAN advocated for the passage of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (Rep. Murphy D-PA), which would repeal DADT.

SWAN has briefed members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Women’s Caucus, the NAACP LGBT Task Force and a number of federal, state and city legislators on the ramifications of DADT for both women and people of color.

SWAN has partnered with the Palm Center and the Williams Institute to conduct an independent study of DADT on black lesbian and bisexual service women.

Reproductive Rights

Service women and women veterans have different reproductive health needs than civilian women. Furthermore, military women lack access to the reproductive services and care that civilians enjoy. Deployed women are especially restricted in the kinds of services they may receive and are often forced to subject themselves to unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Over 65% of military pregnancies are not intended. Service women become pregnant for a variety of reasons that range from poor knowledge about contraceptives to rape. Some women lack access to preventative contraceptives and many are unable to obtain emergency contraception or abortion services. Up until very recently, emergency contraception was not available at all military facilities. While the mandate to provide this necessary preventative is a sign of progress, we have yet to see how this policy has been implemented.

What SWAN does:

SWAN was instrumental in the introduction of the Compassionate Care of Servicewomen Act (co-sponsored by Sen. Franken D-MN and Sen. Olympia Snowe R-ME), which mandates availability of emergency contraception on all U.S. military bases worldwide.

SWAN is partnering with the ACLU and National Women’s Law Center in support of the Burris Amendment on Women’s Health to lift the ban on privately funded abortions in military hospitals. Senator Burris (D-IL) recently introduced this amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010.

SWAN community programs empower women veterans by helping them heal from military-related trauma. SWAN provides a variety of outlets for women veterans to experience creative and personal growth by learning new activities and acquiring new skills. SWAN provides committed veterans with additional training, thereby fostering the leadership of women veterans in communities nationwide. Programs are designed and, when possible, led by women veterans.